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Tips for Growing Garlic
Growing garlic is easy, fun, and rewarding. Here are a few easy tips based on the success we've had in the Pacific Northwest.
When to plant: We generally shoot for the middle of October for getting our garlic in the ground in northwest Washington. Anytime from the beginning of October to early November is fine. Garlic can also be planted in spring but for the best results and largest heads fall planting is preferred.
Preparing the "seed": Separate garlic heads into individual cloves for planting. Each clove is what will produce the following years bulb. You can be as selective with your cloves as what suits your growing needs. In general we are very picky and only choose the largest cloves for planting as they will produce the best and largest bulbs. If you are simply looking to maximize your garlic seed though, all the cloves will produce bulbs. Avoid planting "double" cloves (ie. two cloves that have grown together under a single clove skin) as both cloves will grow side by side as smaller, misshapen bulbs. Bulbs can be soaked overnight in compost tea or diluted liquid seaweed to hasten root growth and give them a boost.
Preparing the bed: The best ground for garlic is deeply tilled, well drained soil. Raised beds work great. Remember, garlic is in the ground for almost 10 months, so it requires a good deal of fertility for the best results. Our strategy has been to provide both quick-medium release fertilizer and a slow release fertilizer at the time of planting so the garlic plants are sustained over their entire growing cycle. We add a healthy layer of composted organic horse/cow manure (quicker release) as well as ground organic alfalfa meal (slow release, about 1# per 15 square feet) to our beds and till them in thoroughly. An alternative method for sustained fertility is to spring feed the growing plants with side-dressed compost or water soluble fertilizers.
Planting: Our garlic beds are about 4' wide and we plant 3 rows per bed spaced about 1' apart. Plant the cloves about 4" apart in the rows (about a hand width) and push each clove in, (bulb scar facing down, pointy side up) so that the top of the clove is about 2" below the soil surface.
Mulching: We strongly recommend mulching your garlic. It helps regulate moisture in the growing season and depending on the quality of the mulch effectively controls weeds. We grew over a half ton of garlic this year and literally did not touch the patch (weeding or otherwise) once except to clip scapes (see below) between planting and harvest. We mulch with seed-free (as much as possible) straw or seedless pasture cut bales (leaf mulch is fine too and free!) to a depth of about 6" over the entire planted bed. The garlic will have no problem pushing up through this when it comes up. Wheat straw is not recommended as it can harbor mites.
During the growing season: Garlic actually requires very little care during the growing season. Expect to see your shoots starting to push up in December or January. Keep the patch well weeded. West of the Cascades we almost never water our garlic as most of the growth happens when there is ample ground moisture. In drier climates or especially dry Springs (ha!) irrigation might be needed. When the "scapes" or "garlic whistles" (the central "flower" stalks that curve into fantastic acrobatic shapes) appear on hardneck varieties usually in June, we cut them to redirect that energy back downward toward growing larger bulbs. This really does make a huge difference in the resulting size of your bulbs, and the scapes are a delicious first taste of the garlic crop for use in stir frys, pickling, freezing, etc. Do observe your garlic as it grows and pull up and destroy and plants that look sickly, ie streaked yellow leaves, stunted growth or unusual leaf curling.
Harvesting: Towards mid-late July we start counting leaves on the plants. As the plants mature the green leaves wither and dry out starting at the bottom and working their way up the plant. The rule of thumb is that when there are about 5 green leaves left on the plant the bulb is ready to pull. Each leaf corresponds to a layer of skin on the bulb. Pulling plants with 5 green leaves left balances having the bulb reaching full size on the one hand, while still retaining enough protective wrapper layers that the bulb will cure and store well. If you wait too long to pull your bulbs, the wrapper layers will be degraded and while the garlic will be fine to eat, it will not store as well. Try to pull the garlic from drier ground if possible for best storage.
Curing: Lots of people have strong ideas about the best way to cure garlic, and our method goes against what many people recommend. West of the Cascades our goal is to get them dry quickly so they do not have excessive moisture going into storage which can cause rot. We dry ours on wire tables in full sun in a well ventilated greenhouse. The plants are arranged in rows so that the leaves of successive rows cover the bulbs of the previous row, the goal being that the leaves are in full sun while the bulbs are shaded. Cloves of bulbs exposed to too much sun will turn greenish as they start to photosynthesize. After the tops of the plants and leaves have fairly thoroughly dried (about 2-3 weeks) we clip the bulbs and store them in well ventilated bins out of direct sunlight to finish drying. You can, of course, eat them at any time during this process. The curing is primarily to prepare the bulbs for storage. We have used this method successfully in our climate for 10 years with garlic sometimes storing until the next year's harvest. Much of what you may read will advise against drying the garlic in direct sunlight. In drier climates shade curing might be preferrable. In the PNW we think it is most important to dry the crop down quickly and thoroughly, and our results have affirmed this.
A quick note on garlic rotation and problems: Due to the presence of soil borne diseases in our area (most notably white rot west of the Cascades), rotating where you plant your garlic is as or more important than almost any other crop. If possible, avoid planting in ground that has grown garlic or other alliums (onions, scallions, leeks) in the past five years. In areas where significant disease pressure is present, longer rotations are advised (our rotation is no sooner then 12 yrs). Good rotation and attention to garlic in the field as well as choosing the best seed will keep most diseases at bay. Do note however that certain pathogens are endemic in the soil as well as thrips and mites that might live in the surrounding grasses, etc. Practicing proper rotation, good seed selection and healthy soil is crucial for long term production.
WE LOVE GROWING GARLIC and hope you find it as enjoyable and rewarding as we do!
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